Poor show halted in its tracks, Nationalists have run out of local heros.

Listening to the EU Withdrawal Bill debate in the House of Commons yesterday, Paul Masterton the newly elected Tory MP for East Renfrewshire gave a hint of what Brexit has done for unionists (even Remainers like Masterton).

In leaving the EU, we can deliver hammer blows to nationalism—yes, of the yellow and black variety, but also of a deeper purple variety. Proposals that give succour to nationalists of either hue should not expect to receive my support.

I urge Ministers to recognise the chance before them to deliver for the moderate majority in Scotland, who want to see devolution succeed and the Union protected, with better, stronger, more sustained co-operation between our two Governments, working together, not pulling apart.

On the whole, in Northern Ireland (as in Scotland), Brexit has cheered unionists and dismayed nationalists. In the case of the latter, it has been a case of confounding the unreasonable expectation that change in NI was only ever a one-way street.

At the count last March at the Titanic count centre for the Assembly elections I briefly met Lord Professor Paul Bew on his way out of the building where we briefly discussed the likely effects of Brexit.

His view, IIRC, was that whilst it would create tactical advantages for nationalism in the short term as negotiations proceeded, Brexit would present it with much deeper structural problems in the longer run.

Fionnuala O’Connor sums up (£) the feeling amongst disappointed nationalists:

Northern Catholics, it seems to this writer, are in a stroppy mood. Not desperate, things have been a lot worse, but in the doldrums, more than a bit disgusted. Supposed negotiations have been fronted by a Sinn Féin team that looks only half-awake plus an energetic new Dublin rep who may or may not be engaged with the SFers and of whom few if any northerners have the measure. Uninterest – born of tiredness and trying to earn a living, rear families – tussles with anxiety.

A powerful sense that Stormont doesn’t matter vies with worry. To show themselves pragmatic, non-sectarian, worthy of Dáil respect, will the Shinners sign up to a deal that they cannot hold the DUP to?

Quite. And she goes on…

What many northern Catholics feel – meaning from those nationalist to greater or lesser extent, believers, non-believers, the Sundays and family occasions type – is ‘we wuz robbed.’

With her snap general election, as well as making her own career immeasurably more complicated, Theresa May turned the result of the assembly election upside-down.

That result took from unionists the winning margin they had held since the state’s formation. But after her narrow squeak, May puffed the DUP up again. One minute the party, in the person of Foster, was in the dog house.

Next the same party, in the persons of N Dodds and J Donaldson, knight of the realm, preened outside Number Ten, sat at a ceremonious table and signed off on a sizeable ‘bung’, as disobliging, unimpressed London put it.

It played very badly back home, among the ‘minority’ that makes up almost half the population and that broadly believes the old majority should get used to its real state, with no puffing, no artificial boosting.

It may look majoritarian, but somewhere along the way what some (many in fact) forgot to tell the nationalist people of Northern Ireland is, in fact, under the Belfast Agreement, all rules apply equally across the divide.

It is actually a near perfect fit for Robert Axelrod’s Prisoner’s Dilemma: a game theory scenario in which, two players are locked together in a game where, on each move, they choose either to ‘cooperate’ with each other or to ‘defect’ – a selfish and hostile act.

If one defects and the other cooperates, then the former is highly rewarded and the latter gets nothing (the sucker’s payoff). If both defect, stalemate results and each receives very little (which is better than nothing).

If both cooperate, they each receive a middle reward. But as Axelrod explains:

‘Although there is mutual benefit if you both cooperate as an individual player, it is rational for you to defect if you think the other player will cooperate (you get a high reward) and to defect if you think the other player will defect (you at least get a low reward). That is the dilemma.’

Defection can work well where conditions are transient or short term. But it breaks down if the same two players have to keep playing with each other over and over again. As Unionism and Nationalism are by dint of that ugly scaffolding.

In fact, it’s been a decade of defections, badly managed expectations and big [empty? – Ed] gestures. It’s also been about no shows: Policing and Justice, (promised for delivery in 2008) and Irish Unity, once promised for last year now always being foreseen, just around the bend.

In contrast, unionism has played [had to play? – Ed] a much tighter and more defensive game. Research tells us that unionist votes are much more dependent on the quality of the returns from those who seek government.

As a result of playing a much slower, longer game, they have acquired a broader range of players, trainers, and managers. And as June shows, when pressed back against the wall they can be ruthless and clinical in the counterattack.

The June result was less turning March’s upside down so much as the huge sectarian heave against the outgoing First Minister that delivered it, massively unwinding on the far side.

Given NI’s cramped conditions defection is tempting, but when facing the same opponent time after time again it also costs. If March was the DUP’s sucker’s pay off, June was SF’s. But having forsaken a northern bird in hand the bird in the southern bush is looking remote.

And, caught between one and the other, along comes…

…a new Dublin team, on a Brexit mission. There is more to the psychology of a community than political choices and posturing. Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are unlikely heroes of northern nationalism but they may be just in time to raise spirits. Northern nationalists have run out of local heroes.

It is a form of madness. But eventually perhaps, old things will pass away; and new things will come.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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